February 2005

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As beautiful as Sydney Harbour is, it's not quiet.

First, there's the party boats: barges that slowly circle the harbour every night, packed to the brim with middle-aged businessmen trying to rediscover the joy of 80's music. Luckily, I'm a bit too far back from the water to be bothered much, but back when I was cat-sitting for my mother in Balmain, they would regularly float by the window, blasting out such classics as Love Shack and Don't You Forget About Me at top volume. (But sadly, not Ça Plan Pour Moi)

The helicopters are more annoying. Party boats are a late-night thing, and it's almost jolly to hear them bopping past. The helicopters, on the other hand, tend to hover (very loudly) outside my window any time they want, most noticeably early in the morning on weekends, whenever there's something interesting happening on the bridge or its surrounds.

A few hundred cars and the occasional train give the bridge its own ambient noise, too. This is easier to ignore because it just becomes part of the general background hum of existence. When Ang first stayed over she asked me if the noise bothered me, and I had to say "What noise?" because it hadn't even registered itself on my conscious mind for six months.

And then, there was this morning (about 8am on a Sunday) when I was dragged out of my bed by what sounded like a jet engine. A really fucking loud jet engine. After the usual few post-waking moments of remembering what planet I'm on and what my name is, I thought: "Hey, I recognise that sound. It sounds just a Formula 1 car."

And it turns out it was:

If I wasn't looking forward to the race so much, I'd be pissed off.

That mildly-embarrassing-but-occasionally-throws-good-parties geek neighbour, Slashdot, notes in passing that Australians are the second most prolific downloaders of TV shows. Not a bad effort for a country of 20 million inhabitants (150 million if you include the sheep, which are the only species I can believe are voluntarily downloading episodes of Enterprise)

There are two factors that put Australia up in the big league for downloading. The first is that Australian television sucks. No really, it does. Occasionally a halfway decent show will come out of an independant production or our public broadcaster (which doesn't have to worry about commercial viability), but for the most part our small population and relative isolation makes it impossible to even approach the production values of the shows we can import.

We're not bad at sketch comedy, and occasionally we'll luck out and find the right mix of writers, actors, and a concept that doesn't suffer from being shot on a shoestring, But mostly we just fill our mandatory local content quotas with endless soaps, painfully bad sitcoms and recycled American reality-TV concepts. Badly recycled. America's Next Top Model put their contestants up in a five star hotel, jetted them to Paris and Tokyo, and knocked down participants for being "too cheap". Australia's Next Top Model bunks them up in a suburban Sydney townhouse, and sends them out to take pole-dancing lessons.

So us Aussies know the best TV comes from overseas. We also know that we're getting it two to five years after everyone else, if at all. Once again, thanks to the size of the market, Australian networks can't take risks on unproven shows. Instead, they must wait a few years until a show has some success before buying the rights.

If a show is successful but still plays to a niche audience, the networks will carefully sabotage any success it might have by continually moving it to different timeslots, knowing that dedicated fans will follow the show wherever it goes, and not really caring about anyone else. (Star Trek nerds from the 1990's still curse Eddie McGuire for his habit of consistently over-running The Footy Show fifteen minutes into The Next Generation's timeslot).

The Internet isn't good for the networks, either. Everybody now has access to up-to-date information about their favourite shows. Worse, the statute of limitations on spoilers tends to last only a few weeks beyond its first run in its home country, so foreigners are doomed to a life of knowing too much, being totally unsurprised by each plot twist that has already been telegraphed across the global ether a thousand times.

One of the cable networks here has been hyping the première of Dead Like Me. From the promos this looked like a decent enough show, so I hopped over to Television Without Pity for a second opinion. The opinion was that it was a good show, until it was cancelled after two seasons. I don't feel like investing the kind of emotional energy required for weekly viewing into a show I already know has (ironically) met an untimely demise.

If I were willing to bother finding out what's happening in P2P TV show sharing (I'm not), I'd just download the episodes, watch them over a weekend and be done with it. And it seems a lot of Aussies are doing just this, with a lot of shows. A friend of mine from IRC used to run a pretty high-profile Charmed fan-site (there's no accounting for taste), and she pretty much had to download the episodes to stay relevant.

It's another case of the Internet making an established business-model obselete overnight. The reaction of the industry will be the same as it was with music: unleash the lawyers and bunker down, until someone comes up with a business model that exploits the new way of doing things, that actually caters to the consumer's desire to get their shows on time, when they want them.

I wonder if someone at Apple is planning "Quicktime TV".

Not that we get the iTunes music store over in Australia either. I vaguely remember an article in the Sydney Morning Herald a few weeks back that suggested the sticking-point was Apple's desire to price songs at 99c. Apple know that this is the magic number -- the record companies don't get it. CD-singles cost AU$5 - is it any wonder nobody is buying them any more?

It's typical of Australia, though. Take an idea from overseas, launch it here at double the price, and wonder why nobody takes it up. Foxtel digital cable offers pay-per-view movies at $7 each. That's more than it costs to rent a first-run DVD. And the DVD store has better selection, the movies start whenever you want them to, and come with all the requisite DVD bonus materials.